Opportunities in France
Posted 05 November 2006 - 05:43 PM
I especially love Paris Sweets, and as I read it, I always wondered, how did you become a part of the Parisian community? What were the jobs that drew you there? And also, how did you learn French? I am in awe of that language
Posted 05 November 2006 - 08:24 PM
As I mentioned someplace else, I fell in love with Paris the moment I got there in 1971. In fact, I often say that I think my mother made a mistake -- she had me in Brooklyn, NY, but I'm sure she really meant to have me in Paris. From that first visit, I knew I wanted to visit as often as I could, although I never really thought I'd be able to live there as I do now.
While my husband and I made friends in Paris over the years, it really was when I began to work with Pierre Herme in 1996 that I began to meet people within the food community and to start to develop my own circle of friends. In part, I was able to develop friends then because I was traveling to Paris more frequently. When, in 1997, we got our apartment in Paris, my friendships grew and deepened. With an apartment, I was able to visit more often, stay longer and, most important, cook and invite people home for dinner -- there's nothing like sitting around a table sharing food to create friendships, something we all know.
As for learning French -- I really believe that speaking French changed my life.
I had taken French classes in high school and college, but couldn't speak a word, in large part because I was too afraid to speak. Sometime after that first trip to Paris, I started taking French classes because I really wanted to speak -- I knew that speaking would make visiting France so much more interesting.
When I found out that I was pregnant, I asked a French friend of ours, a woman we had met on our 1971 trip and with whom we are still very, very close, if she might be able to help us find a French-speaking au pair, so that our child could be brought up bilingually. She suggested her youngest sister, whom we had met years before. Ten months after our son, Joshua, was born, Marie-Cecile arrived.
When Marie-Cecile came to us, she spoke no English. And, while she learned English quickly, she never spoke English to our son -- who is, thanks to her, bilingual -- and tried not to speak it to me. It was really during the five years that Marie-Cecile lived with us that I learned French.
Speaking French changed my professional life because it allowed me to work with many extraordinary chefs who did not speak English. When I was working on pieces for Elle magazine, I worked with chefs, like Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse, who didn't speak English. Of course, when Pierre Herme and I started working together, we worked exclusively in French. And the majority of pastry chefs I interviewed for Paris Sweets were interviewed in French.
While I dreamed of having "a French life", I could never have had it if I didn't speak French.
Posted 07 November 2006 - 04:22 AM
I was wondering what it has been like for a woman, and an American one no less, to assert herself in the world of French cooking. Not an easy task I would imagine. What kind of challenges did you face being an American woman?
Posted 07 November 2006 - 06:27 AM
I mention this briefly in the introduction to Baking, but I went for an interview at a respected French restaurant in New York, having been sent there by the restaurant owner, who told me that the pastry chef was desperate for an assistant. When I got to the kitchen, the chef spoke to me only in French -- never asking me if I understood or spoke the language -- and repeatedly told me that he was looking for "a boy". When I pointed out to him that I wasn't a boy, he told me that that was the reason I wasn't going to get a job with him.
That was in 1981 and, thankfully, a lot has changed since then. I did get jobs that year, but they were in American kitchens -- and kitchens run by women!
I hadn't really thought about it until you asked the question, but, although I've been lucky enough to work with many of the very best French chefs here, in America, and in France, I've never thought of myself as having "asserted" myself in the world of French cooking. And now, considering your question, I realize why -- I never had to, because, by the time I was really involved with French food, I wasn't cooking/baking in French kitchens as an employee. Although I've worked in many French kitchens, it was always as a writer -- I was either working on a newspaper or magazine piece or a book. Or, if I was spending longer periods in a kitchen, it was understood that I was there for a reason other than a job. I think that made a huge difference.
(Of course, as I think most of you know, working in a French kitchen is very demanding and very difficult -- whether you're a man or a woman.)
The closest I've come to having to assert myself as a woman and an American in a French kitchen was when I went to Ecole Lenotre in Plaisir, France. I was the only woman in the class and the only non-French person and the only person who wasn't a real-and-true-and-in-a-professional-kitchen-full-time pastry chef. For all of these reasons, I was a nervous wreck when I entered the classroom kitchen, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined it would be. The guys turned out to be great and very helpful. Were they patronizing me? I don't know. But I learned so much from them that it didn't make any difference to me why they treated me so well.
Of course, once I worked with Pierre Herme, I never had to "prove" myself again in a kitchen in France. It was assumed that if I was good enough to work with Pierre, I'd be good enough to be in any other kitchen.